New York Mets

In a New York Microcosm

In the fifth inning of a game against the Cincinnati Reds, the New York Mets finally had Mike Piazza at the plate with Kaz Matsui and Jose Reyes on base, something that has never happened before.  What took place was all too familiar.The New York Mets entered the 2004 season with a dream top of their lineup built much like the world champion Florida Marlins.  Last season, Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo provided speed at the top of the order for the champs, and the likes of Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera, and Derek Lee had the power to bring them home.  Because of injuries, the Mets were never able to put their intended 1-2-3 punch of Kaz Matsui, Jose Reyes, and Mike Piazza on the field together.  On Wednesday, June 23, in the bottom of the fifth inning against the Cincinnati Reds, trailing by two runs, for the first time this year the Mets had Matsui and Reyes on base with Piazza at the plate.

In the Piazza era, the Mets have never had team speed.  There have been runners like Roger Cedeno, Lance Johnson, Brian McRae, and Timo Perez, but never a 1-2 tandem that would fight to get on base so Piazza could bring them home with a clutch hit.  Maybe Cedeno and Rickey Henderson once provided that, but that was a team full of proven veteran hitters like John Olerud, Robin Ventura, and Edgardo Alfonzo.  Anyways, now with a healthy Reyes, they have blazing speed at the top of the order, and in the fifth inning against Cincinnati was the first time it was out there for the world to see.  What would happen was a perfect microcosm for the Mets season.

With one out, Matsui was on second and Reyes on first.  Mike Piazza crushed a pitch from Todd Van Poppel to deep centerfield.  It wasn’t deep enough to leave the park, which would render running speed useless, but it was hit deep enough so that a player with the speed of Reyes should have been able to score from first base.  Ken Griffey Jr. was the centerfielder going back for the ball, which led to the creation of the microcosm.  

Kaz Matsui, who has looked confused for most of the season, didn’t know what to do on this long fly ball to one of the best defensive centerfielders ever to play.  He went back to the second base bag as if expecting Griffey to catch the ball, and the retreat cost him.  Griffey didn’t make the catch, but he played the carom off the wall to perfection, and fired back towards home plate.  Through the cut-off man (Griffey missed the real cut-off man, but there was backup cut-off on the play), Matsui was a dead duck, nailed at home plate.  

Jose Reyes has been unable to play this season because of injuries, which are no fault of his own.  Some question their legitimacy, but no matter what you believe, Jose has been helpless this year, unable to contribute because he never had a chance.  Such was the case when Matsui went back to second base.  Reyes took his cue from the lead runner and went back to first.  As the ball came in from Griffey, Reyes could only make it to second as Matsui was thrown out.

Mike Piazza finally had a chance to hit with the two speedsters on base.  He crushed the ball, just like he has done his whole career.  But, a big Mike Piazza hit wasn’t enough to put the Mets over the top.  He did exactly what he supposed to do, but through no fault of his own, he failed to bring in a run and left it in the hands of Cliff Floyd.

Cliff Floyd might not put up the biggest numbers, but he gives his team’s lineup exactly what it needs; legitimacy.  He was once a great player before several horrifying injuries slowed him down.  But his presence alone as an intelligent lefty with a little bit of kaboom left in his bat is what rekindled a New York season that seemed over before May, and has kept them in the race for the NL East title.  With two strikes on him in the fifth inning, Floyd delivered the most important hit in baseball, one with two outs and runners on base.  He slapped a single to left field, scoring Reyes from second and bringing the Mets to within one run.  

If Floyd hadn’t bailed out Matsui for his mistake, who knows what the negative reaction from the fans would have been like?  The next batter after Cliff was the great mystery, recent acquisition Richard Hidalgo.  No one knows what to expect from him, and this time he didn’t deliver.  The Mets trailed 4-3 with a five game winning streak on the line.  

And then… in the bottom of the eighth with the score still the same, Piazza stood on third with one out after hitting a double, and Hidalgo had another chance.  He fell behind in the count 1-2, when all the Mets needed was for him to hit get Piazza home at any cost, be it a deep sacrifice fly, a bloop hit, a deep grounder and so on.  Hidalgo reached out, flicked his wrists and slapped a single to right field, tying the game.  It won’t get the same publicity as a towering home run, but this was his biggest hit in his short stint as a New York player.  The Mets had tied the game.

Of course, in the bottom of the ninth, after Jason Phillips delivered a perfectly placed single through the right side of the infield, sending a hustling, 37 year-old Todd Zeile running his heart out from first to third, Kaz followed it up with something awful.  He had a 3-0 count, built mostly on pitchouts designed by the Reds to check I f the squeeze play was on, but he somehow managed to strike out, dumping all of the Mets hopes on Reyes.  It was if he wanted the displaced second baseman to reclaim his rightful role as the shortstop of the future as well.  Reyes couldn’t deliver the two out hit his team needed and the game continued into extra innings.  I repeat: the high-priced Matsui only had to hit a sacrifice fly, hit a single through a drawn-in infield, or do something as revolutionary as not whiff terribly at a predictable split finger in the dirt, and the Mets would have won or at least had the bases loaded with one out and Jose at the plate.  Instead, he failed and dumped all of the pressure onto Reyes, the young symbol of the Mets future that is expected to become the face of the franchise.  

It all came to an end when John Franco, who the Mets keep on their team mostly for sentimentality, gave up the game winning hit, a two run homer to baseball’s most surprising star this season, Sean Casey.  And so the Mets winning streak was snapped.  Their first experience with the two runners in front of Piazza did not work out this time, and Matsui went downhill from there.  Now, on a team that seems to always lose four in a row, and then win four in a row to follow it up, the top five hitters in their lineup all have their identities.  Matsui, Reyes, Piazza, Floyd, Hidalgo.  Confusion, hope, dominance, stability, the unknown.

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